In its own official journal, the Hare Krishna movement has published an unusually candid expose detailing widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children who were sent to live in the group's boarding schools in the United States and India in the 1970s and 1980s.
Parents were often unaware of the abuse because they were traveling around soliciting donations for their guru's books, in airports and on the streets, leaving their children in the care of Hare Krishna monks and young devotees who had no training in educating children and often resented the task, the report says.
The movement's leadership was first forced to confront the victims of abuse at a meeting in May 1996, when a panel of 10 former Krishna pupils testified that they had been regularly beaten and caned at school, denied medical care and sexually molested and raped homosexually at knife point.
"I remember being made to sleep naked in a cold bathtub for a month," Jahnavi Dasi, 26, who was sent to a Krishna boarding school in Los Angeles at age 4, said in an interview Thursday. "I had wet my bed, and it was easier for them to make me sleep in the tub than to change my sheets."
Ms. Dasi also told the leadership meeting in 1996 that she wound up in a diabetic coma for three weeks after her teachers insisted that her health problems were a ruse to avoid cleaning the school and chanting in the temple. "They neglected to take me to a doctor, so I ended up in a coma," at which time she was taken to a hospital, she said.
The Hare Krishna movement, a Hindu sect brought to the United States by the Indian guru A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami in the 1960s, is now acknowledging that the legacy of abuse and the leadership's failure to grapple with it earlier have led many Hare Krishna children and their parents in this country to abandon the faith.
"Many people don't trust the leadership," E. Burke Rochford Jr., a sociologist of religion at Middlebury College in Vermont, the author of one of the two studies published in the most recent Krishna journal, said Thursday. "They don't trust the movement, and people have become estranged as a consequence. The children who in all probability would have been more likely to embrace the movement in the long term, some of them have withdrawn."
The movement now claims an estimated 90,000 followers in the United States, of whom only about 800 live full time in the group's 45 American spiritual communities, called ashrams. At the movement's peak in the United States in the late 1970s, about 10,000 devotees lived in American ashrams, but most now live and work in the secular world. Another significant shift is that where once the movement in the United States consisted almost entirely of Anglo converts to Hinduism, about half of the people now worshipping in Krishna temples in the United States are recent immigrants from India and Asia.
In recent years, the Krishna movement has experienced its biggest growth in Eastern Europe and in India, where it was once regarded with disdain by native Hindus. Internationally, there are now an estimated 1 million adherents to the Hare Krishna movement, known formally as ISKCON, or the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Public revelations of sexual abuse by clergymen have plagued religious groups from the Roman Catholic Church to the United Methodist Church in the last decade. But it is rare for a religious organization to choose to disclose the extent and causes of systemic child abuse in its official publication.
"We need to get to the bottom of it," said Anuttama Dasa, the North American director of communications for ISKCON, "and to the best of our ability do whatever we can to try to repair the damage to the kids and show them we do care as a religious society."
Several schools with dedicated, loving teachers avoided any allegations of abuse, Rochford wrote. But severe sexual and physical abuse was common at the gurukulas, as Krishna boarding schools are called, in India, where many American adherents sent their adolescent boys. When children tried to send letters home sharing their misery, some schools in India censored the letters, Rochford said. The highest levels of abuse in American gurukulas were reported in Dallas, Seattle and New Vrindaban, W.Va.
In 1997, the movement established a Child Protection Office in Alachua, Fla., the site of one of the most thriving Krishna communities remaining. The office helps Krishna temple leaders identify and prevent further abuse, investigates cases of past abuse, and reports them to local law-enforcement authorities.
There have been several lawsuits arising from child abuse cases at Krishna schools in Alachua and in New Vrindaban, W.Va., but they do not approach the number or scope of such cases brought against the Roman Catholic Church, which recently paid $30 million to settle a case of sexual abuse by a clergyman against several boys in Dallas.
"There have been a surprising lack of suits up until now," Rochford said, "for reasons I don't fullyunderstand."
The editor of the ISKCON Communications Journal asked Rochford to write an article chronicling the history and causes of abuse at Krishna boarding schools.
"I think it's highly unusual," Rochford said in an interview. "I was surprised that I was asked to do the article, and I had some reservations about doing it in an ISKCON journal. After so many years studying the movement, I knew this was going to be painful for people to endure."
The reasons for the abuse lay in the very culture and structure of the early Krishna movement, Rochford said in his article. The movement drew very young devotees, many in their late teens and early 20s. Those who were not successful proselytizing and collecting contributions on the street were put to work in the movement's boarding schools. There was no screening of teacher candidates, no training, little financial support, high turnover and often as many as 20 students per teacher, the article reported.
"The mentality of the time was that distributing the guru's books and engaging oneself in missionary activity was the most important service that one could be involved in," Rochford said in the interview. "People's status within the movement was very much based on their ability to be effective in those tasks. Family, the way we see present in most Christian traditions, was not valued in the same way. Sexuality and family were something for those that were spiritually weak."
Celibacy was the ideal, the article said. But to accommodate families, the movement's founder asked the Krishna temples in the United States to set up boarding schools modeled on the gurukulas, or Hindu schools, in India. The goal was to immerse students in the spiritual life, which Swami Bhaktivedanta taught meant cutting the "ropes of affection" between parent and child, Rochford wrote.
Children were sent to the gurukulas as early as age 3 or 4, and visited with their parents as seldom as once a month, or even once a semester. From 1975 to 1978, 11 Krishna schools opened in the United States and Canada, with regional schools in Lake Huntington, N.Y., and central California.
The movement no longer maintains boarding schools in the United States, and many Krishna families now send their children to public schools. But some Krishna temples do run day schools for students.
Jahnavi Dasi, who remembers being forced to sleep in a bathtub, still believes in the Krishna philosophy, and sends her 5-year-old son to a Krishna kindergarten in Alachua. But unlike her mother, who was a Krishna missionary, Ms. Dasi lives in her own house, earning her living running a computer business with her husband. Every day, she picks up her son from kindergarten.
"The most important thing is that I'm here, I'm aware of what's happening, I'm monitoring the school, and making sure my son is protected," Ms. Dasi said. "I wouldn't send him away somewhere else."